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Owl Baiting for Fun and Profit: The Ethics of Owl and Raptor Photography

Snowy owl hunting
A Snowy Owl swooping toward a white mouse. Photo: Government of Quebec website page about its provincial symbols.

Post #57 of 100 Days of Blogging

Thanks to the availability of affordable and technically advanced equipment, the opportunity for stunning bird imagery is in the reaches of both amateur and professional photographers. Competition is fierce to produce the most incredible photos and some photographers will do whatever it takes to get a jaw dropping image – regardless of any negative consequences for the subject.

At its core, birding ethics boils down to doing no harm to the creatures you are seeking to view. The ABA’s code of ethics spells out a number of guiding principles to follow in order to ensure this. So how does baiting an owl with pet store (or fake fur) mice, for the sake of a photograph, fit into the equation? From a legal perspective, it is acceptable. From an ethical point of view, the answer to that question depends on which side of the contentious fence you happen to be standing on.

For some, the act of setting some unsuspecting pet-store mouse loose on frigid snow to become prey for a wild Snowy Owl is justifiable, and no different from feeding and then photographing birds at backyard feeders. Others merely see baiting as nothing more than just “cheating” at photography. Then there are those who find it entirely unacceptable.

Consider the following 10 facts about baiting owls. Where do you stand?

#1. The typical scenario of winter owl baiting goes something like this. A group of photographers hears about a Snowy Owl that has been seen at a location as it arrives from the Arctic, likely exhausted and hungry, in search of new food sources. The photographers race off paparazzi style to view the bird and set up their cameras & tripods at the scene. This is often a roadside setting. A live, store-bought white mouse is removed from its warm container and set loose on the frigid, snow covered ground in sight of the owl that is likely perched on a nearby pole. The owl is also in sight of the photographers who are ready to start snapping the shutter the moment the owl flies toward the lens. With “luck” the resulting image will be a dramatic, head-on shot depicting the owl with its wings spread wide and talons stretched out as it moves to grab its prey. This is repeated over and over until the mouse supply runs out. The photographers may or may not return to bait the owl another day.

#2. The Snowy Owl in the above scenario easily becomes habituated to humans and cars. Since baiting stations are often close to roads, this puts the bird at high risk for being killed by a vehicle strike. If not while being baited than perhaps on another day and/or location when it sees humans and cars, which it now associates with a potential “free” meal.

#3. Others claim owls have the potential to become “lazy” and stop hunting on their own as the result of being “spoiled” with food. This puts them at risk for starvation once the photographers’ offerings disappear.

#4. Using a fake or dead mouse is another baiting technique. Likely because it is much cheaper than using live mice, it involves tethering the pseudo mouse to the end of a fishing pole and pulling it along to encourage the owl forward. The mechanics of owl physiology means that before it can eat a new meal, it must first regurgitate its previous meal in the form of a pellet.  The owl’s empty stomach is also devoid of liquid and baiting it over and over without any kind of food reward is cruel; it can lead to exhaustion of its energy supply and dehydration. Read more about winter owl baiting in general as well as its effects on physiology at Laura Erickson’s blog.

#5. To add to the mix, some argue that the mouse, along with a few of its friends, might actually escape being grabbed up in the owl’s talons. In which case, if they are able to survive the harsh winter temperatures, have the potential to set into motion the conditions that lead to the negative consequences of an invasive species. Or a mouse might be tainted and make the owl eating it sick.

#6. On its website, the ABA as part of its birding ethics code, recommends “to avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming. If you are attracting birds to an area, ensure the birds are not exposed to … dangers posed by artificial hazards.”

#7. The ABA also recommends to “keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.”

#8. Audubon advises photographers to “never flush birds (that is, disturb them and make them fly)—either your subject or other birds near your subject. In breeding season, it can interfere with reproduction. In winter, it can cause birds to use up precious internal resources.”

#9. Other experts recommend becoming familiar with the signs of stress in owls. For an excellent overview on this subject please watch this video by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO).  If you are pursuing an owl in its natural setting make sure not to get too close. Owls that change their posture, flap their wings or are vocalizing are likely experiencing stress.  Owls that hunt at night and sleep during the day will be stressed if you suddenly wake them up. You may think an owl is resting even if it has only a slit of its eye open. This is a sign that it is watching you and may be stressed by your presence. A safe rule of thumb is to photograph birds at an angle so that they aren’t looking you in the eye ( i.e. into the camera). While this may not seem to be as evocative an image at first, consider aiming for more naturalistic, behavior depicting types of scenes. These can be just as evocative as those with eye contact.

#10. Owls and other raptors may be stressed by being chased from perch to perch. Something to keep in mind the next time you pull your car over on the side of the road to watch or photograph a bird of prey perched on a tree. Ever wonder why they fly to another perch? Quite possibly you are stressing them out by getting too close and they are not just moving over for a better vantage point.

Resources: In addition to the links in the post, here are a few more interesting articles and viewpoints.

The Pathless Wood Blog has an excellent more in-depth view of the above points, check out this post

Laura Erickson’s For the Birds  is a great blog, especially see the link to her page from #4 above.

An interesting article: Baiting raptors for photography is a contentious issue, but what are the real impacts?

Please watch the O.W.L. Observe with Respect video by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) mentioned in #9 above.

HawkWatch International has an interesting blog post about raptor photography ethics here

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